STREAMING MUSIC AND movies over the internet may seem more eco-friendly than stocking up on CDs and DVDs. After all, you’re saving the plastic needed to make the physical media, the trees needed to print the liner notes, and the gasoline needed to ship all those discs across the country. But there’s a hidden cost to online streaming: the coal needed to power the computer data centers that deliver all that content.
Last year, Greenpeace estimated that within two years, information technology will take up between seven and 12 percent of all electrical use. About 21 percent of that will come from data centers. The good news is that this year, the biggest tech players inched closer to creating a green internet. But there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done. And because it’s unlikely that the incoming Trump administration will push renewable energy forward on its own, the giants of the internet carry more responsibility than ever.
Apple claims that 93 of its worldwide operations are now powered by renewable energy sources, and Google claims it will hit 100 percent renewable energy next year. The other big players are further behind, but they’re also investing heavily in renewable power. Facebook, according to its most recent report, estimates that 35 percent of its data center electricity comes from renewable sources. Amazon says that it will hit 40 renewable power by the end of the year. And Microsoft says its data centers are at 44 percent now.
These numbers might be confusing, especially since both Google and Microsoft also claim to be “carbon neutral.” That’s because both companies, in addition to buying renewable energy, also buy what are called carbon offset credits. Carbon offset credits don’t necessarily stop fossil fueling from being burned. Instead, the money is pumped into some sort of project that will, in theory, cancel out the environmental cost of burning coal in one part of the world. The funds may go towards buying clean energy, but they can also go towards planting trees or improving the energy efficiency of old buildings. Critics, such as environmental journalist George Monbiot, have long called compared them to religious indulgences—a way to sooth a guilty conscience without actually changing behaviors.
To find out what the internet giants are promising, continue reading on one of our favorite news sources, www.wired.com.